Doo-wop music is one of those terms most people have a general conception of but would struggle to define. We seem to know it when we hear it. The label conjures up an aesthetic and attitude of the era in which doo-wop existed, the 1950s and early 60s, but that doesn’t distinguish doo-wop music. Part of the difficulty defining doo-wop comes from its being a sub-genre; it’s a genre within the oldies genre. In their book, The Complete Book of Doo-Wop, Gribin and Schiff state that songs and groups “are neither doo-wop nor not doo-wop,” but “can be rendered in doo-wop style.” Less opaque, they assert “[a] doo-wop record occurs when a vocal group sings a song in doo-wop style.” And they insist a group is necessary to the doo-wop style, though some songs by single artists (accompanied by background singers) can be considered in the genre.
But what is doo-wop style?
Gribin and Schiff describe it as “a music that conveys more naiveté, innocence and raw feeling than any other kind.” Surely, the subjectivity in their appraisal and the nebulosity of a description like “raw feeling” don’t help us here. However, naiveté and innocence are a great place to start. Doo-wop songs are almost exclusively about the early adventures of amorous relationships. Specifically, they romanticize young adult love and dramatize its fallout with lyrical simplicity. There is also a respective sweetness and sadness in successful doo-wop songs that is carried by infectious vocal harmonies and an abundance of effortless hooks. The genre is the antithesis of specialized or pretentious, the listener needs no prior knowledge or context to enjoy; it is uniquely accessible. The best doo-wop songs are exceedingly simple yet exist as little moments of mystifying magic.
In no particular order, the following is a handful of my favorite songs that epitomize the naiveté, innocence, sadness, and infectiousness of the doo-wop genre: